WASHINGTON — The ambitious plans of top Republican leaders in the House of Representatives to tackle immigration this year may already be in trouble, before the House speaker has even had a chance to unveil his ideas on how to fix problems that have long plagued the nation and, more recently, divided the GOP.
Republicans plan to kick off a three-day retreat this week where leaders are expected, among other initiatives, to call for legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, intends to unveil his legislative outline, which also is likely to include strengthening border security, adding more high-tech visas and revamping the guest worker program.
But several members of Congress’ influential Republican Study Committee say a consensus is growing that bringing immigration to the floor this year is a bad idea and might seriously hurt the party in an otherwise positive-looking year. There were subdued cheers on the Republican side of the gallery during the State of the Union address Tuesday night when President Barack Obama called for immigration restructuring this year.
“It’s time,” Obama said.
Hours beforehand, members and staff of the Republican Study Committee had huddled on Capitol Hill. Several stood up during the meeting and expressed concerns that an explosive debate on immigration could wipe out Republican political gains over the president’s health care plan.
Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma, the House Republican Policy Committee chairman, was among those who spoke out against pursuing immigration this year. Lankford said in an interview after the State of the Union that opposition was strong against any large-scale proposal that included legalizing immigrants who were in the country illegally. But he said the main concern Republicans had was with Obama, who isn’t seen as a trustworthy partner willing to seriously address some of the tougher problems of enforcement.
“I do think we should reform immigration – this is a very serious issue – but this has all the appearance of just being a political game instead of solving a problem,” said Lankford, the fifth-ranking House Republican. He’s announced that he’s running for the Senate.
Even some of the most devoted supporters of an overhaul have backed away. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who helped lead a failed bipartisan effort for a comprehensive solution, said he expected committee members, as well as a majority of the Republican coalition, to recommend not pursuing the leadership’s plans.
He cited the State of the Union and Obama statements about bypassing Congress to pass executive orders on minimum wage increases and other issues.
“He’s willing to go around Congress to do things that we’re unwilling to pass. Why would we trust him?” Labrador asked.
The issue will be brought before all Republican House members this week at the retreat.
“The speaker believes we need to act, in a step-by-step way, to start to fix America’s broken immigration system,” said Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman.
Boehner and other Republican leaders want to solve the immigration issue as part of efforts to change the perception of the GOP to a party that’s more welcoming to a growingly diverse electorate. Obama won a second term with more than 70 percent of the Latino vote.
The speaker has demonstrated that he’s serious about taking up the immigration debate this year. He hired new staff members who’ve worked on comprehensive plans and publicly criticized outside groups known to oppose immigration.
Not having the support of the Republican Study Committee would be a blow to him and the immigration debate. The influential committee is made up of more than 160 conservative members of the coalition.
Boehner conceivably could act without their support, but he’s unlikely to do so. Any effort to steamroll conservatives and work out a deal with Democrats would risk his speakership.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Wednesday that she was eager to see Republicans’ immigration principles. She didn’t know specific details, she said, but she thinks it’s a good-faith effort to find common ground. She welcomed any proposal, including one that didn’t include a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. But she said Democrats would insist on some kind of citizenship track.
“When we talk about a path to citizenship, it doesn’t say you’re instantly a citizen, all of you,” she said. “No, there are hurdles to get over, the path is in some ways an arduous one and people have to go down the path to make it happen. But we need to have that path.”
Staffers for the Republican Study Committee acknowledged that immigration concerns were raised at Tuesday’s meeting but they said it was part of a broader discussion of several issues that the members will take up during the retreat. No official recommendations were made for or against pursuing immigration this year, staff members said.
But multiple attendees who spoke to McClatchy about the meeting said the opposition was strong. Some raised concerns that the debate could hurt several Republican Senate candidates as well as derail chances of taking over the majority of the upper chamber.
The discussion lasted about 15 minutes, with about eight or nine members speaking out against the plan, according to Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who’s one of the staunchest opponents of giving legal status to the undocumented. No one, he said, spoke in favor of leadership’s plan.
“If one were to listen to that discussion, they could easily conclude there was solid consensus that debating immigration this year is a bad idea,” King said. “A very solid consensus in that room.”
Some in the room discussed recent editorials from leading conservative journals that advised Boehner to abandon the immigration effort.
The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol said an explosive debate could “blow up GOP chances for a good 2014.”
“The basic tactical reason not to act now is that the last thing the party needs is a brutal intramural fight when it has been dealt a winning hand on Obamacare,” editors for the National Review wrote. “It is not as though the public is clamoring for an immigration bill.”
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said she wasn’t sure whether the committee would stake out an official position on immigration.
“But I do know that a critical mass of members will declare an all-out war on this subject,” she said. “We won’t let it go.”
David Lightman contributed to this report.
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